The chilling effects of online harassment and how to respond
06 Dec. 2016

The problem of online harassment is well-known, but how do we respond in realistic, constructive ways to mitigate, prevent and protect? Photo: Affiliated Network for Social Accountability – Arab World

By Andreas Reventlow, Programme Development and Digital Freedom Adviser

From election campaigns in the US to comment sections, community forums and social media in every country on the planet, online harassment is pervasive and has a severely negative impact on the diversity and inclusivity of the internet.

The problems are well-known, but how do we respond in realistic, constructive ways to mitigate, prevent and protect? International Media Support explored the issue at this year’s Internet Governance Forum in Mexico, a country which itself is battling abuse both online and off.

Whether they are systematic, large-scale smear campaigns or individuals targeting those they disagree with, the threats and attacks against anyone who sticks out their neck, is critical, in opposition, or simply does not conform to prevailing norms, are alarming.

In addition to the psychosocial difficulties the harassment itself may bring, at-risk groups particularly in very conservative contexts are faced with the added distress of friends and family victim-blaming or even harming them physically, because the person who was abused will “have to have done something to invite the attack,” said Hyra Basit from Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, which recently launched an online harassment helpline that offers psychosocial support, legal advice and digital security assistance.

Also available to men who are most-often told to just “deal with it”, the helpline is anonymous to assist those who have no one else to turn to because of their environment. “There is no real concept of psychological support for these issues in Pakistan, so we are there to help, there to listen to people,” said Hyra Basit.

Having access to the right kind of assistance is of paramount importance in dealing with the impact of harassment, said ‘Gbenga Sesan, from Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, one of the leading ICT and youth-focused non-profits in the country, pointing to research which shows that the prevalence of online harassment is effectively keeping many women off the internet entirely in under-served communities in Nigeria. Alarmingly, this holds true even when their education depends on access to internet.

For journalists, bloggers and others whose work is meant to foster public debate, online harassment is no less pervasive and problematic. An area of particular concern is harassment by state-backed actors, said Ellery Biddle who runs Advox, an initiative of Global Voices dedicated to protecting free speech online.

“They target our writers, calling them traitors and spies,” she said, pointing to Venezuela where state-affiliated actors formally and informally target journalists who are critical of the government in an unapologetically transparent way. “There is even an open Telegram account run by the agency that controls the media that is used to target journalists.”

Turkey’s online trolls linked to the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is another example of state-backed online abuse that seeks to intimidate journalists by hacking into their social media accounts, threatening physical and sexual abuse, and orchestrating “virtual lynch mobs” of pro-government voices to silence their criticism. Between November and January 2016, the International Press Institute logged more than 2,000 cases of online abuse, death threats, threats of physical violence, sexual abuse, smear campaigns and hacking against journalists in the country.

In India, the problem of online harassment is pervasive and in some cases so systematic that it functions as a very real form of censorship through the fear it instils in people for speaking out, said Mishi Choudhary from the Software Freedom Law Centre in New Delhi, which recently published a comprehensive report on the issue.

But how should we respond to the problem? From a legal point of view, there are a series of free expression implications.

“You risk being over-protective and censoring completely legitimate speech acts,” said Jonathan McCully from the Media Legal Defence Initiative. “In India and Kenya, courts have struck down provisions on cyber bullying that prohibited speech of a ‘menacing, annoying or inconvenient’ nature,” he said. Such nebulous formulations are risky because they can be used to supress speech critical of the government for example.

In the United Kingdom, provisions in Communications Act seek to address the issue as well, but it goes hand in hand with specific, clear guidance on when individuals should or should not be prosecuted. As such it tries to strike the balance between banning actually harmful speech acts while at the same time being careful to not be overprotective and creating a chilling atmosphere for freedom of expression. “If we’re going to legislate, we need to be very careful,” said Jonathan McCully.

But in many contexts, legal action is not necessarily considered an option for individuals targeted with online harassment as it can seem like a resource intensive and time-consuming process to embark on. Many people would rather just shut down, stop talking and disconnect altogether, said Marcel Leonardi from Google Brazil, who has seen first-hand how the effects of online harassment affects the diversity and inclusivity of YouTube’s community.

“Brazilians love watching videos. They are the second-most active group on YouTube globally, but we noticed that Afro-Brazilians are severely lacking in content creation in fostering communities on the platform. We looked into it and found that it was due to self-censorship because they are harassed so severely,” said Marcel Leonardi.

As a response, Google partnered with the Brazilian organisation Instituto Mídia Étnica and invited 25 of the top Brazilian YouTubers to showcase their views as part of a public event to encourage other Afro-Brazilian users to take part in creating content and add to the voices available on the platform.

Unfortunately there is no single, one-size-fits-all response to addressing online harassment, let alone ways to prevent it from happening in the first place. As a complex socio-technological issue, it requires a wide range of responses that can help mitigate, prevent and protect. One of the main takeaways from our session at this year’s Internet Governance Forum is that the better, more resilient and diverse communities we have both online and offline, the better chance we have of supporting those who are harassed in a meaningful way.

That does not take away the responsibility from authorities or intermediaries that have legal and policy-focused courses of action at their disposal, but it does mean that effective community-led responses need to be part and parcel of an integrated approach that addresses the problem from all sides.

This session on responses to online harassment was organised by International Media Support as part of our work to support local journalists, bloggers and human rights groups in countries affected by armed conflict, human insecurity and political transition.

Watch the full session here: